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Secure Sanctuaries: Places of worship prepare to defend against attacks

Church-goers gather at Mission Dorado Baptist Church on Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019. The church sits within sight of the movie theatre where police took down a gunman who killed at least sevent people and shot more than 20 people Saturday. "This is Odessa, Texas. Things like this don't happen here," said Pastor Del Traffanstedt. (Ryan Michalesko/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

For Fletcher’s Chapel Primitive Baptist, it was the nine who died at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston that spurred efforts to implement a security plan.

For St. Andrew Presbyterian, it was the shooting at First Baptist Church in Texas that killed 26 people.

The list of murders at houses of worship and how they led local churches to adopt security plans goes on — the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and, most recently, West Freeway Church of Christ in Texas.

“The way the world is now, the violence that is happening at churches across the United States, you just never know what is going to happen. You want to be prepared for everything,” said Donald Calvin of Fletcher’s Chapel in Madison.

Calvin was one of 650 people representing churches from Decatur, Hartselle, Somerville, Moulton, Huntsville, Madison and Florence who attended a Church Safety Conference at Somerville Baptist Church on Thursday.

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“We are here to talk about the ability to be armed and secure in our houses of worship. Strangely enough, we wouldn’t think of this being a topic five years ago,” said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

For the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, which organized the event, the conference was a year in the making.

“Almost every week for the past year, we’ve had churches come to the office asking what they can do and can’t do,” said Mike Swafford, spokesman with the Sheriff’s Office. “There are scores of churches here that have the same desire. That is to keep their facilities safe and secure so they can worship freely. Our goal is to get the churches talking about security and have an idea of what they need to do next.”

That talk began at St. Andrew Presbyterian in Decatur a year ago, prompted by the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a gunman fired 450 rounds of ammunition at First Baptist Church. St. Andrew Presbyterian started with a simple plan, to post the head usher at the entrance during Sunday service.

“When it was my time to sit at the entrance, I thought, ‘What in the world am I supposed to do if somebody comes here,’ ” said W.C. Sweeley, who served with security police in the Air Force. “I went to the worship committee and they asked me to develop a plan. Everybody has a role. They know what they’re supposed to do.”

Two weeks ago, the church conducted an emergency drill of the non-lethal lockdown process and, within 17 seconds, the action team secured the sanctuary.

‘Too much violence’

Marshall equated the topic on church security today to what schools faced two decades ago in the wake of the shooting at Columbine High School.

“Where we were and where we are in the area of school safety is where we are getting to now in understanding the safety of our sanctuaries and our churches. We thought that this wouldn’t be a place where we would have to worry about violence. We didn’t think that this would be the type of place where somebody would do harm. But we’ve seen that happen nationally,” Marshall said.

In the past five years, more than 50 people have died in worship center-related shootings. The shootings spanned religions and denominations, from Church of Christ, Baptist and Catholic churches to Jewish and Sikh temples.

“There are too many shootings going on, there is too much violence,” said Mike Preuitt with Hartselle Church of Christ, which created a security team a year ago.

At the Church Safety Conference, attendees learned how to create a standard operating procedure, how to form a security team, the need to conduct drills and about Alabama’s gun laws.

State Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said he plans to file the Alabama Church Protection Act during the 2020 legislative session. The past two years, versions of the bill that sought to expand the state’s self-defense law to churches came before the Alabama House of Representatives. In 2018, the bill cleared the House, but died in the Senate, and in 2019, the House never voted on the bill.

Marshall said Alabama’s “Stand Your Ground” law already pertains to churches and, because the state deems churches as private property, the law relating to guns on private property covers worship centers. The law allows individuals with a concealed permit to carry their guns onto private property, unless otherwise noted by the property owner.

“There’s been a lot of discussion since Texas of do we need to amend our laws in some way that relate to churches, guns and self-defense,” Marshall said, referring to the December shooting at West Freeway Church near Fort Worth. “The reality is no. We don’t necessarily create specific exceptions for churches, but we have a system of laws in place and churches are covered just like any other private property.”

Lessons learned

During the conference, attendees examined, frame-by-frame, the event at West Freeway, where Jack Wilson, the head of the security team, killed the shooter within six seconds of the first shot, saving numerous lives.

Despite the church’s preparedness, two people, including a member of the security team, died during the attack. Security expert Noelle Bishop of Bishop 30 Solutions noted how one security member fumbled with his gun, how some in the congregation stood and others ducked and how, by the end of the event, five armed members of the church, thinking their muzzles were trained on the shooter, actually were pointing their guns at the congregation.

“You cannot have a security team just by having some people with a concealed carry permit sitting in your congregation,” Bishop said. “I’m not trying to Monday morning quarterback this, but I think you now can see the level of training that needs to be taking place to keep your people safe.”

Outside the sanctuary, booths lining the hallway highlighted the latest in security gadgets, from cameras and radios to shooting simulators and books about how the Bible addresses self-defense and violence.

“What really is sad is that we have to put this type of conference on,” Sheriff Ron Puckett said. “We should be having a revival here, not necessarily an event about church safety. But we are here because all of you are sheepdogs and you are here so you can protect the flock.”

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© 2020 The Decatur Daily